A whopping 280 Australians develop diabetes every day. That’s one person every five minutes. It’s the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia; outpacing other lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancer. More shocking that this? The rate is rapidly increasing all over the world.
What the heck is causing these terrifying trends? Today, we delve into the world of diabetes to see what effect our lives are having on the prevalence of the condition and specifically, the role that sugar plays. But first, let’s get some basics right.
For your body to function properly, it needs to be able convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy your cells can use. In a healthy body, the heavy lifting is done by a hormone called insulin, which is produced and released by your pancreas.
When someone develops diabetes, their pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to carry out that energy conversion. So, when that person eats glucose-rich foods, (think bread, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables, legumes, dairy and sweets), that glucose stays in the blood and causes hyperglycaemia (a fancy term for high blood sugar levels).This can wreak all sorts of havoc on the body, and left unmanaged can severely damage the eyes, nerves, kidneys, heart and other organs.
It’s important to note that there’s not a one-size-fits-all diabetes condition. There are actually multiple types:
Type 1 diabetes: is an auto-immune condition in which the immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. The causes are largely unknown, but it doesn’t appear to be linked to any modifiable lifestyle factors.
Type 2 diabetes: results from the body’s ineffective use of insulin. Type 2 is much more prevalent than type 1 and is largely the result of modifiable lifestyle factors like diet (ie: too much fat and sugar) and exercise (ie: lack thereof).
Gestational diabetes: is hyperglycaemia in pregnant women, with levels above normal but below those that would result in a diabetes diagnosis.
Prediabetes: is basically a type 2 diabetes warning sign, in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, although not high enough to result in a diagnosis. Left untreated, around one in three people with prediabetes will develop type 2 diabetes.
Does sugar cause diabetes?
It seems logical to assume that sugar causes diabetes, considering it’s high blood sugar levels that indicate the condition in the first place. However, we must note there are no direct links to sugar consumption and type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune condition and doesn’t discriminate.
Sugar’s relationship to type 2 diabetes is a bit more complex. A 2016 scientific review found that while there are some pretty convincing patterns to suggest that sugar consumption is linked to the condition, more research is needed.
The review suggests that the direct mechanisms of sugar that lead to diabetes involve a sugar called fructose – the stuff often found in huge quantities packaged and processed foods, as well as soft drink. The liver absorbs fructose without regulating the intake, leading to a build-up of liver fats and a decrease in insulin sensitivity (that is, your body needs even more insulin to lower your blood
Additionally, multiple meta analyses suggest there’s definitely something going on with high-sugar soft drink and the condition. A 2017 study found that consuming just two soft drinks a week can significantly increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
While the direct links to sugar and type 2 diabetes are complex and still being nutted out, eating too many high-sugar foods is certainly associated with an increased incidence of weight gain and obesity – which is one of the biggest risk factors for developing the condition.
There is also strong research to indicate eating too much sugar can increase your risk of liver disease, heart disease, high cholesterol, hormone changes, chronic inflammation and cancer. Yikes.
Avoiding high-sugar foods is certainly a helpful step in preventing and managing diabetic conditions. But it should be taken in addition to an overall healthy eating plan promoting plenty of whole, unprocessed foods, as well as daily exercise (and we’d lay off the Coke). All types of diabetes are complex and require daily management, as well as a professional medical healthcare plan. If this has raised any red flags for you, see a doctor as soon as you can.
Watch out for our next post, where we’ll take you through some specific foods that may help you manage your diabetes… (HINT: One of them may be monk fruit ).